The horrific images from Abu Ghraib have come to define the ill-starred occupation of Iraq, but what do they really tell us about America? Are they simply the work of a few rogue soldiers, or the result of the new foreign and domestic policies of the Bush administration, which find ready approval in an increasingly brutalised society? Susan Sontag on the ugly face of the war on terror
May 24, 2004
By Susan Sontag
For a long time - at least six decades - photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what people recall of events, and it now seems likely that the defining association of people everywhere with the rotten war that the Americans launched preemptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib.
The slogans and phrases fielded by the Bush administration and its defenders have been chiefly aimed at limiting a public relations disaster - the dissemination of the photographs - rather than dealing with the complex crimes of leadership, policies and authority revealed by the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of the reality on to the photographs themselves. The administration's initial response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs - as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict.
There was also the avoidance of the word torture. The prisoners had possibly been the objects of "abuse", eventually of "humiliation" - that was the most to be admitted. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference. "And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word." Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word "genocide" while the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda was being carried out 10 years ago that meant the American government had no intention of doing anything.
To call what took place in Abu Ghraib - and, almost certainly, in other prisons in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in Guantanamo - by its true name, torture, would likely entail a public investigation, trials, court martials, dishonourable discharges, resignation of senior military figures and responsible cabinet officials, and substantial reparations to the victims. Such a response to our misrule in Iraq would contradict everything this administration has invited the American public to believe about the virtue of American intentions and America's right to unilateral action on the world stage in defence of its interests and its security.
Even when the president was finally compelled, as the damage to America's reputation everywhere in the world widened and deepened, to use the "sorry" word, the focus of regret still seemed the damage to America's claim to moral superiority, to its hegemonic goal of bringing "freedom and democracy" to the benighted Middle East. Yes, Mr Bush said in Washington on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families". But, he went on, he was "as equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America".
To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times, "unfair". A war, an occupation, is inevitably a huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions representative and others not? The issue is not whether they are done by individuals (ie, not by "everybody"). All acts are done by individuals. The question is not whether the torture was the work of a few individuals but whether it was systematic. Authorised. Condoned. Covered up. It was - all of the above.
The issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely. Considered in this light, the photographs are us. That is, they are representative of distinctive policies and of the fundamental corruptions of colonial rule. The Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, committed identical atrocities and practised torture and sexual humiliation on despised, recalcitrant natives. Add to this corruption, the mystifying, near-total unpreparedness of the American rulers of Iraq to deal with the complex realities of an Iraq after its "liberation" - that is, conquest. And add to that the overarching, distinctive doctrines of the Bush administration, namely that the United States has embarked on an endless war (against a protean enemy called "terrorism"), and that those detained in this war are "unlawful combatants" - a policy enunciated by Rumsfeld as early as January 2002 - and therefore "do not have any rights" under the Geneva convention, and you have a perfect recipe for the cruelties and crimes committed against the thousands incarcerated without charges and access to lawyers in American-run prisons that have been set up as part of the response to the attack of September 11 2001. Endless war produces the option of endless detention, which is subject to no judicial review.
So, then, the real issue is not the photographs but what the photographs reveal to have happened to "suspects" in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken - with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the second world war took photographs of the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare. (See a book just published, Photographing the Holocaust by Janina Struk.)
If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs - collected in a book entitled Without Sanctuary - of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show smalltown Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.
If there is a difference, it is a difference created by the increasing ubiquity of photographic actions. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies - taken by a photographer, in order to be collected, stored in albums; displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of pictures - less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession of most soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers - recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities - and swapping images among themselves, and emailing them around the globe.
There is more and more recording of what people do, by themselves. Andy Warhol's ideal of filming real events in real time - life isn't edited, why should its record be edited? - has become a norm for millions of webcasts, in which people record their day, each in his or her own reality show. Here I am - waking and yawning and stretching, brushing my teeth, making breakfast, getting the kids off to school. People record all aspects of their lives, store them in computer files, and send the files around. Family life goes with the recording of family life - even when, or especially when, the family is in the throes of crisis and disgrace. (Surely the dedicated, incessant home-videoing of one another, in conversation and monologue, over many years was the most astonishing material in the recent documentary about a Long Island family embroiled in paedophilia charges, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans .) An erotic life is, for more and more people, what can be captured on video.
To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life, and therefore, to go on with one's life, oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's non-stop attentions. But it is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture one is inflicting on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the primal satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.
You ask yourself how someone can grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being - drag a naked Iraqi man along the floor with a leash? set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering, naked prisoners? rape and sodomise prisoners? force shackled hooded prisoners to masturbate or commit sexual acts with each other? beat prisoners to death? - and feel naive in asking the questions, since the answer is, self-evidently: people do these things to other people. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have permission. When they are told or made to feel that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion.
For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what Mr Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and heart of America".
It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the games of killing that are the principal entertainment of young males to the violence that has become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant kick. From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools - depicted in Richard Linklater's film Dazed and Confused (1993) - to the rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation to be found in working-class bar culture, and institutionalised in our colleges and universities as hazing - America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are, increasingly, seen as good entertainment, fun. What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the exercise of extreme sado-masochistic longings - such as Pasolini's last, near-unwatchable film, Saló (1975), depicting orgies of torture in the fascist redoubt in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era - is now being normalised, by the apostles of the new, bellicose, imperial America, as high-spirited prankishness or venting.
To "stack naked men" is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The observation, or is it the fantasy, was on the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh's response: "Exactly!" exclaimed Limbaugh. "Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time." "They" are the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on. "You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?"
It's likely that quite a large number of Americans would rather think that it is all right to torture and humiliate other human beings - who, as our putative or suspected enemies, have forfeited all their rights - than to acknowledge the folly and ineptitude and fraud of the American venture in Iraq. As for torture and sexual humiliation as fun, there seems little to oppose this tendency while America continues to turn itself into a garrison state, in which patriots are defined as those with unconditional respect for armed might and for the necessity of maximal domestic surveillance.
Shock and awe was what our military promised the Iraqis who resisted their American liberators. And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behaviour in open defiance and contempt of international humanitarian conventions. But there seems no reversing for the moment America's commitment to self-justification, and the condoning of its increasingly out-of-control culture of violence. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies and family.
What is revealed by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality. Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamour to get on a television show to reveal. The notion that "apologies" or professions of "disgust" and "abhorrence" by the president and the secretary of defence are a sufficient response to the systematic torture and murder of prisoners revealed at Abu Ghraib is an insult to one's historical and moral sense.
The torture of prisoners is not an aberration. It is a direct consequence of the doctrines of world struggle with which the Bush administration has sought to fundamentally change the domestic and foreign policy of the US. The Bush administration has committed the country to a new, pseudo-religious doctrine of war, endless war - for "the war on terror" is nothing less than that. What has happened in the new, international carceral empire run by the US military goes beyond even the notorious procedures enshrined in France's Devil's Island and Soviet Russia's Gulag system, which in the case of the French penal island had, first, both trials and sentences, and in the case of the Russian prison empire a charge of some kind and a sentence for a specific number of years.
Endless war permits the option of endless incarceration - without charges, without the release of prisoners' names or any access to family members and lawyers, without trials, without sentences. Those held in the extra-legal American penal empire are "detainees"; "prisoners", a newly obsolete word, might suggest that they have the rights accorded by international law and the laws of all civilised countries. This endless "war on terror" inevitably leads to the demonising and dehumanising of anyone declared by the Bush administration to be a possible terrorist: a definition that is not up for debate. An interminable war inevitably suggests the appropriateness of interminable detention.
The charges against most of the people detained in the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan being non-existent - the Red Cross estimates that 70% to 90% of those being held have apparently committed no crime other than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in some sweep of "suspects" - the principal justification for holding them is "interrogation". Interrogation about what? About anything. Whatever the detainee might know. If interrogation is the point of detaining prisoners indefinitely, then physical coercion, humiliation and torture become inevitable. Remember: we are not talking about that rarest of situations, the "ticking bomb" scenario, which is sometimes used as a limiting case that justifies torture of prisoners. This is information-gathering authorised by American military and civilian administrators to learn more of a shadowy empire of evildoers about which Americans know virtually nothing, in countries about which they are singularly ignorant - so that any "information" might be useful. An interrogation which produced no information (whatever the information might consist of) would count as a failure. All the more justification for preparing prisoners to talk. Softening them up, stressing them out - these were the usual euphemisms for the bestial practices that have become rampant in American prisons where "suspected terrorists" are being held. Unfortunately, it seems, more than a few got "too stressed out" and died.
The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live. Indeed, it seems they were necessary to get our leaders to acknowledge that they had a problem on their hands. After all, the report submitted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other, sketchier reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian organisations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on "detainees" and "suspected terrorists" in prisons run by the American military, have been circulating for more than a year. It seems doubtful that any of these reports were read by Mr Bush or Mr Cheney or Ms Rice or Mr Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this "real" to Mr Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are a lot easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination.
So now the pictures will continue to "assault" us - as many Americans are bound to feel. Will people get used to them? Some Americans are already saying that they have seen "enough". Not, however, the rest of the world. Endless war: endless stream of photographs. Will American newspaper, magazine and television editors now debate whether showing more of them, or showing them uncropped (which, with some of the best-known images, gives a different and in some instances more appalling view of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib), would be in "bad taste" or too implicitly political? By "political", read: critical of the Bush administration.
For there can be no doubt that the photographs damage, as Mr Rumsfeld testified, the reputation of "the honourable men and women of the armed forces who are courageously and responsibly and professionally protecting our freedoms across the globe". This damage - to our reputation, our image, our success as an imperial power - is what the Bush administration principally deplores. How the protection of "our freedoms" - and he is talking here about the freedom of Americans only, 6% of the population of the planet - came to require having American soldiers in any country where it chooses to be ("across the globe") is not up for debate either. America is under attack. America sees itself as the victim of potential or future terror. America is only defending itself, against implacable, furtive enemies. Already the backlash has begun. Americans are being warned against indulging in an orgy of self-condemnation.
The continuing publication of the pictures is being taken by many Americans as suggesting that we do not have the right to defend ourselves. After all, they (the terrorists, the fanatics) started it. They - Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein? what's the difference? - attacked us first. James Inhofe, a Republican member, from Oklahoma, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before which secretary Rumsfeld testified, avowed that he was sure he was not the only member of the committee "more outraged by the outrage" over what the photographs show. "These prisoners," Sen Inhofe explained, "you know they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals." It's the fault of "the media" - usually called "the liberal media" - which is provoking, and will continue to provoke, further violence against Americans around the world. More Americans will die. Because of these photos.
There is an answer to this charge, of course. It is not because of the photographs but of what the photographs reveal to be happening, happening at the behest of and with the complicity of a chain of command that reaches up to the highest level of the Bush administration. But the distinction - between photograph and reality, between policy and spin - easily evaporates in most people's minds. And that is what the administration wishes to happen. "There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist," Mr Rumsfeld acknowledged in his testimony. "If these are released to the public, obviously, it is going to make matters worse." Worse for the US and its programmes, presumably. Not for those who are the actual victims of torture. The media may self-censor, as is its wont. But, as Mr Rumsfeld acknowledged, it's hard to censor soldiers overseas who don't write letters home, as in the old days, that can be opened by military censors who ink out unacceptable lines, but, instead, function like tourists, "running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise". The administration's effort to withhold pictures will continue, however - the argument is taking a more legalistic turn: now the photographs are "evidence" in future criminal cases, whose outcome may be prejudiced if the photographs are made public.
But the real push to limit the accessibility of the photographs will come from the ongoing effort to protect the Bush administration and its policies - to identify "outrage" over the photographs with a campaign to undermine the American military might and the purposes it currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an implicit criticism of the war to show on television photographs of American soldiers who were killed in the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the aberrant photographs and tarnish and besmirch the reputation - that is, the image - of America. After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell. The only good Indian is a dead Indian. Hey, we were only having fun. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable. Can the video game, "Hazing at Abu Ghraib" or "Interrogating the Terrorists", be far behind?
© Susan Sontag 2004